Photo: Joshua Franzos
Ragnar Kjartansson has trouble seeing where the deadly serious ends and absurdity begins. When the Icelandic artist and musician swaggered into Europe’s limelight at the 2009 Venice Biennale, garnering critical acclaim for his video installation, The End, it was with a good deal of both. The work portrayed the 34-year-old Kjartansson and a fellow musician performing in sublime environments around the Canadian Rockies—a tribute to the bombastic futility of art in the face of nature. In an accompanying and more infamous performance, Kjartansson spent six months—each and every day of the entire run of the Biennale—painting portraits of his collaborator, a fellow artist dressed only in a Speedo, in the typical setting of the Renaissance masters. Beer in hand, he churned out 144 portraits.
Beginning March 10, Carnegie Museum of Art will play host to Kjartansson’s first solo exhibition at an American museum, organized by Dan Byers, associate curator of contemporary art. As part of the six-month run, the artist will premiere a new work titled Ragnar Kjartansson: Song created for the museum’s regal Hall of Sculpture. Music plays a vital role in his life and art, and he and his bandmates in the group Trabant are rock stars in Iceland. This latest work, based on a melody inspired by an Allen Ginsberg poem, will be sung live in the Hall of Sculpture by Kjartansson’s three adult nieces—over and over again for three straight weeks.
A vaudeville-style night of music on March 24, held in collaboration with The Warhol’s Off the Wall performance series, will feature Kjartansson and his family and friends performing at Carnegie Music Hall the way they do Sunday nights at his mother’s house in Reykjavik. This intimate gathering will mark the group’s first public appearance. All the while, a decade’s worth of the artist’s playful and provocative videos provide a window into Kjartansson’s own artistic instincts and cultural environments that formed them.
The unifying factor in your work is performance. Is that in your genes?
I’m from a family of divas. My sister, she’s the main diva in Iceland now, as my mother was before her. My mother is kind of the Marilyn Monroe of Iceland—she was the ’60s blonde bombshell in Icelandic theater. And my father is a theater director. Our household was really blissful, it was very ’80s Bohemian, and there were always actors around hamming it up. But there was always a serious undertone—like the struggle between my parents—so it was really a double-sided thing. It was all a great big party until they divorced.
Is there a difference between theatrical acting, like what your mother or sister do, and what happens in your videos and performances?
It’s an ethic of pretense; pretense and reality at the same time. Like in Me and My Mother [Kjartansson’s video trilogy]: you see me in my mother’s living room, in front of her books, with my mother. And my mother is spitting on me. The first one I did while I was in art school, and a Dutch artist who did a studio visit at my school said, “This is a really bad video because you can obviously see that she’s acting and trying to be funny. It’s not emotional—it’s not good.” And then I realized that’s my field of interest, when there’s this friction between pretending and doing.
Me and My Mother is from 2000. Does the same idea apply to your newer work?
Oh, yes, like in The Man [a 2010 video of 97-year-old blues pianist Pinetop Perkins] we see a guy who’s so used to his acting as a performer that his pretensions are just gone—they’ve been gone since 1928. He doesn’t know any difference between himself and the showman anymore. In their old age, some people have family photographs: he’s got these blues riffs; that’s his family.
Are your video works meant to be ironic?
It’s a constant struggle between truth and lies; between the tongue-in-cheek and the serious. In Scandinavian Pain [a performance in a remote cabin in Norway], for instance, there’s this typical Edvard Munch landscape; it’s around where he painted, actually. And it also really looks like a location for an Ingmar Bergman movie. And it’s exactly what you think when you say, “Scandinavian pain.” So, even this sweet landscape becomes a little bit pretentious. Just like my work, when I see an Ingmar Bergman movie, I think they’re being entirely serious and entirely ironic at the same time.
How are you influenced by Iceland’s history and its art?
There is no visual culture in Iceland; I mean none. Thousands of years of history and culture, and there are really almost no objects. It’s only recently, with my travels, that I’ve begun appreciating art objects, so I don’t believe in the idea that you have to obtain the art piece to have it—to me, you don’t even have to see the art piece. In Iceland, there is a 1000-year history, and no proof that it existed, but there are all these stories—the poetry, the sagas. And my performance works exist mostly as stories. And I love that this happens. When I did The End in Venice at a remote location far from the rest of the Biennale, people kept saying, “You should have a webcam or something,” but I like the idea that very few people saw it. And the ones who did, they’ll have a small anecdote about it—“Oh, Kjartansson was drinking beer and painting”—and that’s how it exists.
What inspired the site-specific work Song for the Hall of Sculpture?
I was at a residency in Poland, and I was lying in a hammock with a guitar, trying to remember this Ginsberg poem. I didn’t have the book with me, but I remembered the essence of it, and I wrote this little doodle. When I saw the museum’s spaces, it was like a picture flashed: I have to get my nieces into the Hall of Sculpture and do that little doodle. It’s in part because I’m so tired of masculinity—I started out working with the brutal side of masculinity, Vikings and armor, and that changed into this feminine side of masculinity, friendship—like in The End.
It seems like everyone in Iceland is an artist or musician these days! Is there a lot of competition among artists there?
I think that’s the reason why it’s so good right now—there is very little competitiveness because there’s nothing to compete for! There’s not really any way of “making it” as an artist in Iceland. There’s no prize—no Gagosian [Gallery], no Carnegie Hall. And that’s a very good kind of art scene for things to grow—that’s how New York was in the ’50s and ’60s, that’s why all this good stuff came there. People aren’t competing for some abstract weird things like money and glory.